Lee Child's Imaginary Landscapes

By , Contributor

One Shot, a Jack Reacher thriller starring Tom Cruise, opens on December 21, 2012. That news, and the publication of another Jack Reacher thriller, The Affair, provide an occasion to consider a very odd feature of the work of Reacher’s creator Lee Child—his imaginary landscapes.

Child is one of the most successful, prolific, and inventive writers of thrillers today. The Affair is the 16th Reacher novel, and is as inventive and exciting as all the other Reacher novels are. And in case you haven’t read any Reacher novels, I should mention that he is 6’ 5”, weighs 250 pounds. He’s a West Point graduate and a former MP. He roams the country on buses, and trouble finds him wherever he goes. And that’s just fine with him, because he’s a born fighter.

And where does he commit all his mayhem? There’s the rub. Child tells us where Reacher travels on the bus, but when he gets off, he steps into never-never land. Take The Affair, for example. Child tells us that it takes place in northeast Mississippi, near Tupelo, where I grew up, and where Elvis Presley was born. Having said that, Child proceeds to invent a large army base near there, where Rangers are stationed, and where a large train, which figures prominently in the plot, passes through at midnight every night.

It’s not just that I know for a fact that there are no trains and no army bases within hundreds of miles of Tupelo; the characters, which are interesting in their own right, and complexly presented, aren’t Southern, and Child makes no attempt to present them as Southern. Here’s a telling detail: Several key scenes are set in a diner. The trouble with that is that the word “diner” is hardly used in the South, and is very much out of place here. People in small towns in New Jersey may eat in diners, but people in small towns in northeast Mississippi do not.

To understand just how unusual Child’s imaginary landscapes are, notice the contrast between his novels and those of two masters of the detective genre—the late, great Robert B. Parker and John Sandford (pseudonym of John Roswell Camp). It’s not just that Parker sets his Spencer series in Boston; he locates Spencer’s office in an identifiable building on a specific street. Spencer and the love of his life, Susan Silverman, eat at identifiable restaurants and go for walks in Boston’s Public Garden. Or, to take an example from an ongoing series, Sandford’s Virgil Flowers lives in a specific place (Mankato, near Minneapolis). The people he encounters are recognizable as Minnesotans and have Minnesotans’ concerns. (Incidentally, it appears that Child and Sandford read each other’s work closely. Sandford’s Flowers is a former MP, like Reacher; in The Affair, Reacher sleeps with the (female) sheriff, as Flowers does in Bad Blood.)

So why do Reacher’s inevitably violent adventures take place in some never-never land? I think it’s because Child has invented a character who enjoys ultimate freedom. He has fewer attachments than a Zen master; he has no family or possessions, and wants none. Like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, he acts as judge, jury, and (mostly) executioner. As Child himself says in an interview on his website, Reacher commits more murders than he solves. In Worth Dying For, he kills about 15 men, all of them serious bad guys, and burns down two large houses. In the real world in which Spencer and Flowers operate, such a rampage would bring on legions of police. But the imaginary landscapes that Child creates for Reacher have no legitimate representatives of law and order, so our hero can do whatever he needs to do to see that justice is served. And then he catches another bus, or walks to the highway and sticks out his thumb to hitchhike.

Fortunately, we can anticipate that Reacher will have many more adventures, and will have them in places that offer no limits to his sense of justice, as there are no limits to Lee Child’s imagination.

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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